DAILY INSIGHT: Digital Zombie Series: "Notifistraction"

By Carl Hooker, CIO Advisor


Since the beginning of time, man has always had an innate sense of alertness. In our primitive self, that alertness was used to make us aware of dangers around us. Imagine it—you are hunting and gathering food when all of a sudden you happen upon a pond with fresh water. You bend over to quench your thirst or possibly fill a jug with water for your family, when all of the sudden you hear a twig…


You turn and look for what blood-crazed beast might be approaching you. It turns out to be a smaller creature…like a squirrel. (Look! Squirrel!) Following your expience with the varmint, you travel cautiously back to your cave having survived certain death. When you arrive home to your wife and kids you discover that you left your jug full of water behind. “What were you thinking?” she might ask (although back then it might be more like a series of grunts). Your response would be simply “Ah dunno” (which in modern times still sounds like a series of grunts).

The truth is, you were distracted. Your brain refocused attention and energy toward survival and alertness. In that moment, you forgot the water jug and simply returned home. To set this more in modern times, have you ever gone into a room to look for something and then something else caught your eye or someone asked you a question at which point you forget why you were in the room? You might even travel back into the original room to sort of mentally “retrace” your steps and try and figure out why you were going into a certain room.

I know I’ve probably paid hundreds of dollars in wasted electricity staring into the refrigerator pondering why I went there in the first place. By our very nature, we are victims of distraction. Distraction causes our brain to alter its original course of action whenever a new stimulus is produced. Some of us have become quite acute at managing this and claim to be multitaskers (a theory that is seemingly debunked weekly). Others have figured out ways to block out distraction when working on a task.

Enter the era of smartphones and notification alerts. All the sudden, something as small and innocent as a beep or tweet causes us to lose focus on our task at hand. I’m calling this “Notifistraction” (No-tis-fah-strac-shun) Disease, or the mash up of notifications and the distraction they cause. Despite our best efforts to focus, our brains still revert back to the stone-age twig-snapping event whenever our devices alert us about something.

And that’s only part of it. A local cyber-psychologist here in Austin, Dr. Mike Brooks, says that we are becoming addicted to our alert notifications. He states that we get small endorphin rushes to our brain whenever we get an alert notifying us that someone has connected with us. This can be mentioning us in a tweet, tagging us in a photo, or commenting on our YouTube video, for example. That connection creates endorphins that are subconsciously associated to the sound or sight of a notification alert.

Think of the rat in B.F. Skinner’s famous rat experiment on Operant Conditioning as a simple example of this conditioning. A more modern example might be the feeling one gets when walking through a casino and listening to the slot machine make all sorts of bells and whistles to claim we have won something. That same primitive level of satisfaction combined with our inability to control perfect focus when distracted makes Notifistraction Disease another sign that the Digital Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.

Like everything else I’ve written in this series, I have had some level of personal challenges to overcome when it comes to notifistractions. Recently, I was honored to receive a new Pebble watch as a going-away present from my TEC-SIG presidency. Just like any new gizmo, I love the watch. I can see my running times on it, can bring up the weather, and can even be notified when my washing machine is done with my clothes. It uses the smartphone as sort of a “main frame” and just relays alerts to the watch. Now I have notifistractions literally tethered to my body!

Now, as with Digital Yawns, the good news is there are some homeopathic cures out there for those of us suffering from Notifistraction Disease. Here are some tools I’ve deployed personally to help me get through a project or just simply enjoy time with my kids and family without my attention being drawn else where. It’s already come in handy when we went on a recent family trip and I noticed that the airport had mis-tagged our car seats which would have sent them to a totally different city. If my nose had been buried in my phone, I wouldn’t have caught that slip-up.

1. Turn Off Notification Alerts -I have turned off all audio alerts except for text messages and phone calls. While this might not seem like much of a sacrifice, at one point I was getting Foursquare alerts about the good mileage Greg Garner made on a recent run. Do I really need to know that? (he’s fast by the way) My next step is turning off that little alert icon that appears on my apps as I don’t need to see the 999 unread email messages I might have.

2. Don’t Respond to Everything Right Away -

I try not to respond or read alerts or social media while sitting in the car. Notice I didn’t say “while driving”. This is still a bit of a challenge, because, just like the Skinner rat, I sometimes want to know what someone is sending me. Of course, with the new watch, I can see the alert on my wrist and just choose not to respond, but that’s still a distraction.

3. Employ the “Pomodoro Technique” -

When working on a project, I employ the Pomodoro Technique. I have to give props to Lisa Johnson for sending this my way, but it’s a simple technique used to maintain focus throughout a project. Here’s how it works. You write down a goal or project that you need to work on. Then you basically turn off all notifications, shut down email, turn off your phone, etc., for a period of 25 minutes. When the 25 minutes are up, you can take a break for 5 minutes to check email, social media, your clothes in the washing machine, etc., but then you have to get back to work on the task for another 25-minute period. I even employed this technique while writing this post!Let’s face it, we’ve been distracted creatures for thousands of years, but it’s time we started managing those distractions and not letting them rule our lives. Do we really need to know when our washing machine is done? The next time you suffer from Notifistraction Disease, ask yourself, is it really important that I get this alert on my phone? You might find yourself being distracted by more pleasant things like nature and birds and … squirrels!

Now . . . what was I saying?

Note: This post is the third installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on
Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.

Carl Hooker is director of innovation & digital learning at Eanes ISD in Texas and blogs at Hooked on Innovation, where this is cross posted.